You Know Their Voices. Now, Meet the Dedicated, Dependable Men of TOAST (The Old Announcers at Shoney’s on Tuesday)
A Note from Eldredge ATL December Guest Editor David de Vries: TOAST has been such a welcome fraternity in my life. It has evolved over the decades from a working group to a primarily retired group, but we’ve been through a lot with each other and I think we cherish the connections we’ve built. We know each other’s quibbles and foibles and raise our voices and get our feathers ruffled but we come back the next week and turn the page. Women are far more adept at sustaining these kinds of cafe klatches, so the fact that it’s this group of men who stand together in fellowship and support is kind of rare.
It’s a shade past 9:30 a.m. and as they have for the past 21 years, the members of The Old Announcers at Shoney’s on Tuesday or TOAST, are crashed at a back table at the Toco Hills Goldberg’s Deli, catching up. While the venue and the time have changed over the years (“We used to meet at the old Shoney’s on Piedmont Road on Tuesdays at 8 a.m. since it was near the studios where we were routinely booked.”), the camaraderie has not.
Among the collected this morning, chatting over eggs, coffee and bagels are: Voiceover artist Jerry Immel, who is perhaps best known to Atlantans as the “Dedicated. Determined. Dependable” voice of WAGA-TV for 18 years, voiceover and video artist John Atwood (“I’ve probably done hundreds of corporate videos over the years. I excel at walking and talking simultaneously.”) and Spencer Herzog, the audio engineer and co-founder of Atlanta’s Creative Sound Concepts studios, who has routinely worked with both Atwood and Immel, recording corporate audio and video spots (“They’re the quote unquote talent. I’m the untalented one who makes it sound good!”).
Over the years, Herzog has produced audio work with Atlanta architect John Portman, future “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, actors Louis Gossett, Jr., Burt Reynolds and a teenaged Zac Efron, who was driven to the studio by his mom (“’High School Musical’ had just come out. I was unaware but my nine-year-old daughter set me straight.”). Missing this morning is David de Vries, who is busy performing morning matinees of “A Christmas Carol” all month at the Alliance Theatre.
Now old enough to drink, TOAST has outlasted marriages, the Buckhead Shoney’s and an ever-evolving industry where scripts used to roll out of fax machines and now in 2019, clients and talent are rarely ever in the same room, let alone the same time zone.
This is an edited version of TOAST’s breakfast conversation with Eldredge ATL.
Jerry Immel: Test, test. Now, that we see you’re recording us, our voices will naturally drop a notch.
Spencer Herzog: Well, mine won’t!
Immel: The reason I like this group is the weekly opportunity for conversation and camaraderie. In a time when so much of this work is now done at home studios, we don’t have a chance to interact much.
Herzog: I opened the studio back in 1982 because it was a bit like inviting your friends over to your house to play. It was fun. Jerry was actually the first professional voice we recorded at the studio.
Immel: Over 18 years, I did a lot of promos for WAGA-TV. “Dedicated, Determined, Dependable.” That was me. I was the voice of ValuJet. Did some things for CNN. My real niche was “voice of authority” stuff. I did a lot of explainer stuff, some of which I had no idea what I was saying but I made it sound convincing.
Herzog: They had to play extra if they wanted us to understand it.
John Atwood: The ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s were kind of the golden age for corporate video stuff. Just because the technology had not yet been demarcated where you can now do these things on your phone, like the way we’re conducting this interview with you. The advent of the VCR meant companies didn’t have to send trainers around the country, they could just make a tape or a disc and send that out. That’s where guys like me came in. It was a great way to make a living.
Immel: I had started out doing radio in the 1960s and branched out to TV, John has a theatre background and of course, so does David.
John Atwood: I started out as an engineer so I knew what the guys in the lab coats were talking about. I had the same background so I could explain it on video to others. I was basically Pat Sajak without the game show. Folks from Minneapolis will remember I had a commercial that ran there forever. It was for Donaldson’s department store.
This was way back in the 1970s when “Saturday Night Live” had Chevy Chase falling down a lot. Donaldson’s did a Live from Donaldson’s Saturday Night Sale. So, I fell off the end of an escalator and said, “Live from Donaldson’s!” The thing ran for years.
Jerry: What a claim to fame!
Atwood: (laughing) It was certainly interesting. Somebody found it and posted it on Facebook not long ago.
Herzog: I had worked for MCA Records right out of high school but there was a lot of partying that went on. I opened my own studio because I decided that I wanted to live to an older age. Through the years, Coca-Cola, UPS and IBM were all huge clients for us. We worked on New Coke [in 1985]. I was not a fan. We couldn’t believe they were doing it.
Atwood: It tasted just like Pepsi, didn’t it?
Herzog: Yeah, that was one of the main problems with it. The fact that they would change that was mind-boggling. We were not at all surprised when they changed course on that and brought back the classic Coke. I also did sound on-set and produced music for the 1980s TBS soap opera “The Catlins.” It became a cult classic because it was so bad. The creator would be in his office writing the next scene we were about to shoot. We didn’t even block scenes, we just shot them. Mary Nell Santacroce [who played the title character in the Alliance Theatre production of Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy”] played the matriarch of the family. It ran for almost three years.
Immel: It was an Atlanta production and it was like a talking dog. It wasn’t really about how well the dog talked, just that he talked at all.
Atwood: Was this one of those shows where they were so short on talent that they’d slap a wig on someone and they’d play another character?
Herzog: I don’t remember that happening but I ended up playing a flower delivery guy because they needed someone at the last minute.
Immel: It sounds like something Ed Wood would have produced.
Herzog: Probably the plot I remember most was the characters were supposed to be on a cruise ship or some kind of ship. But in order to make it look like a ship, we went outside and we shot the scenes on the roof of the building at night. We put some lights up and reflected some water off the side of the building so it looked like a ship. It was a weird job.
Immel: I think the key reason we’ve kept TOAST going for all these years is…
Atwood: We don’t have anywhere else to go! We used to meet once a week to discuss our voiceover work, now we mostly discuss the pharmaceuticals we’re taking.
Herzog: With all of the developing technology, the work got less fun. One of the reasons I sold the studio a few years back is that it got to the point where the talent would be in LA and the client was in Australia and I was sitting in this big studio alone in Atlanta. It became a far less personal process. TOAST is an opportunity to come together once a week and hang out and talk shop.
Throughout the month, Eldredge ATL December Guest Editor David de Vries has discussed his work in the Alliance Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” and his portrayal of AJC editor John Walter in Clint Eastwood’s new shot-in-Atlanta drama “Richard Jewell.” He has also introduced readers to former student and Suzi Award-winning Atlanta actor Haden Rider.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.